In a move likely to raise eyebrows abroad, Georgia and Iran have dropped visa requirements and resumed direct flights in a bid to expand economic ties. The agreements between Tbilisi, Washington’s closest ally in the South Caucasus, and Tehran come amid ongoing efforts by Iran to press ahead with its nuclear program, despite opposition from the US and European Union.
Tbilisi stresses that its overtures to Tehran are motivated solely by its campaign to attract foreign investment and tourists. Iran, which, during the days of the Persian Empire, once controlled parts of Georgia, lies roughly 300 kilometers to Georgia’s south, and is seen as an easy market for entry.
To underline the goal of economic growth, Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze emphasized that “a major leap forward” had been made in the two countries’ economic ties. “The number of Iranian tourists increased by 173 percent, while bilateral trade grew by 63 percent,” Vashadze noted.
Hopes run high that the November 2 restoration of direct air travel between the two countries, would provide a boost to trade and tourist numbers. On November 4, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will travel to Batumi, the center of Georgia’s recent tourism drive, for the opening of an Iranian consulate there.
Mottaki identified energy, security and transit as the main economic sectors where Georgia and Iran can cooperate. He also offered Tehran’s services in mediating Tbilisi’s conflicts with breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Tehran has long tried to promote itself as a good neighbor in the South Caucasus. Similar proposals for conflict mediation have been extended to Armenia and Azerbaijan concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, but to no avail, as yet.
In keeping with that foreign policy objective, Mottaki confirmed Tehran’s intention to engage in international talks in mid-November on Iran’s uranium enrichment program. (Iran hopes the talks will also include its recent deal to supply nuclear-reactor fuel to Turkey.) In approval, Georgia’s Vashadze remarked that Georgia and Iran “both … are committed to maintaining the policies of zero problems with neighbors.”
But for all the talk about reviving “the historic tradition” of Iranians and Georgians traveling between each other’s countries, Tbilisi, prior to Mottaki’s visit, was quick to give assurances that its closer ties with Iran would not damage its friendship with the West.
“We largely … depend on the United States for political support. Therefore, it is absolutely groundless to suggest that we are somehow questioning this strategic cooperation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze told a November 1 news briefing. “We have no under-the-table relations with anyone, especially Iran. … We just want to achieve good relations, both politically and economically, with all the large countries in our neighborhood.”
Kalandadze in May had indicated that Tbilisi consulted with Washington – arguably, its closest Western ally – about Mottaki’s visit. The US embassy in Tbilisi has not commented publicly about the trip.
When asked whether Tbilisi is considering changing its trajectory toward integration with Western structures such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Vashadze responded: “Absolutely not. … Nothing has changed, full stop.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.